On September 26, a delegation of the Arunachal Pradesh government led by Chief Minister Pema Khandu attended a presentation in Delhi by the Central government think tank Niti Aayog “on [a] proposed Multipurpose River Valley Project for Siang River”.

The Siang is the Brahmaputra’s main tributary that connects to the Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is known in Tibet where it originates.

A press statement issued by Khandu’s office later that day said the proposed project in the state’s Upper Siang district was “estimated to be a 300-metre-high dam with power generation capacity of 10,000 megawatts” – the biggest ever in India.

It will replace two relatively smaller previously planned projects, Siang Upper Stage-I and Stage-II, and be built on the site earmarked for the latter. The Siang Upper Stage-I was to have an assigned capacity of 6,000 megawatts and Stage-2 of 3,750 megawatts. The new project will not only exceed their combined capacity but will reduce the project cost by 25%, according to the Niti Aayog.

Listing the benefits from the project, the state government’s press note stated:

“The state will benefit through its 12% free power share that comes to about Rs 2,400 crores per annum as revenue. Another Rs 200 crores per annum will be added through its 1% free power share, which will be used exclusively for local area development. Besides Rs 4,500 crores proposed for R&R [rehabilitation and resettlement] package, the project will attract an investment of about Rs 80,000 crores with huge employment generation and creation of several economic opportunities.”

Opposition, scepticism

However, indigenous communities in the region have vehemently opposed the project, saying it will swallow large tracts of farm land.

Khandu is reported to have told Niti Aayog chief Amitabh Kant that “people in the state carry lots of negative notions regarding large dams”. The chief minister’s office quoted him as saying, “Sometimes, opposition to dam is fuelled by narrow vested political interests and people being gullible fall prey to misinformation.” Khandu reportedly suggested that the Niti Aayog visit the state, meet the people and “understand the nature of their opposition”.

The chief minister is right to be cautious. The proposal for a bigger-than-ever dam and his endorsement of it almost immediately led to protests in Upper Siang district. Activists in the Siang valley have traditionally resisted big dams and the latest protests are no surprise. But this time, apprehension about the project goes beyond the usual parties. Even hydropower companies have expressed scepticism and doubts about it.

An anti-dam protest in Tawang. The people of Arunachal Pradesh have traditionally been opposed to big dams. (Credit: Lobsang Tashi / via YouTube)

Project developer wary

The Siang Upper Stage-II project – the proposed site of the new dam – was to be built by the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation. The state government signed a memorandum of agreement with the public-sector company in May 2013. “We had started initial survey work for the original Stage-2 project, but now we have put it on hold as per the government’s instructions,” the company’s Arunachal Pradesh coordinator Sania Ngurang said.

The company does not think the proposal to combine two projects is a good idea. “As things stand now, it is better to build according to the old plan of two stages,” Ngurang said. “But the Central government is insisting on one big project. If there is one big project, then the district headquarters of Upper Siang, Yingkiong, will completely submerge.”

However, he said it was up to the Central and state governments to “sort things out among themselves”.

‘Avoid confrontation’

An Itanagar-based senior executive of the state-run National Hydro-Electric Project Corporation, who did not wish to be identified, said it was wiser to avoid confrontation and protests. The corporation’s 2,000-megawatt project on the Subansiri river along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border has been on hold since 2011 following an order of the National Green Tribunal – which adjudicates on matters related to environmental protection – and protests by indigenous groups.

However, it plans to go ahead with a dam project on a Siang tributary that has not drawn the same negative attention. “We just submitted a detailed project report for a 1,600-megawatt dam on the Siyom tributary of the Siang,” he said. “And there was no protest, since they are okay with projects on the tributaries. So, it is better to avoid confrontations and concentrate on the tributaries.”

Vijay Taram, an anti-dam activist in the region, agreed that there was little resistance to projects on tributaries. “There are 41 projects on the tributaries of the Siang, and we don’t have any opposition to any of them,” he said. “But we will not accept the submergence of any land inhabited by people from our Adi tribe.”

Taram’s statement is a climbdown from his earlier stand. Till a few years ago, his organisation, the Forum For Siang Dialogue, was opposed to all the bumper-to-bumper dams planned on the Siang’s main stem and its tributaries.

There are 44 dams planned in the Siang basin, including five on the Siyom tributary, according to a 2013 study. (Credit: Mousvurik / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0)

44 dams on the Siang

According to a 2013 report authored by the Union government’s Central Water Commission, 44 dams were proposed in the Siang basin at the time. This included three dams on the river’s main stem – two of which the Centre now wants to replace with one mega dam. The other project on the main Siang is called Siang Lower and is supposed to have a power generation capacity of 2,700 megawatts.

The report noted that the proposed dams on the Siang’s main stem would dry up 271 km of the river and submerge more than 18,000 hectares of forests. All 44 dams put together would destroy a river length of 513 km and submerge 23,867 hectares of forest lands, it added.

The Central Water Commission said that if the dams on the main stem were to be built, then projects on the tributaries should be dropped. It recommended that 15 such dams be done away with. This included five on the Siyom tributary that the National Hydro-Electric Project Corporation is now eyeing. The Commission said:

“It is strongly recommended that after dropping these projects, these river reaches should be kept free. These projects should not be re-allotted by altering their features, locations, names… Also on other free stretches/tributaries no further hydropower projects should be planned/allotted in the entire Siang basin even if they are small [below 25 megawatts].”

It is not clear if building one 10,000-megawatt dam on the Upper Siang instead of two as previously planned would increase or decrease the area that would be submerged from 18,000 hectares and the length of river that would be dried up from 271 km.

Government treads with caution

In the face of the resistance to the mega dam project, Arunachal Pradesh government spokesperson Pasang Dorjee Sona said the decision to build it was the Central government’s and the state was yet to take a final call. “Ultimately, the decision will have great bearings on the socio-economy of the state, so any decision has to be in tandem with the realities of the state,” he said.

When it was pointed out that the chief minister had initially backed the Niti Aayog’s proposal, Sona said: “We are supportive as it will uplift the economy and create employment, but at the same time we have to consider other things too.”

In the last 10 years or so, the state government has signed more than 150 memorandums of understanding to develop up to 50,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power. But most of these fell through with the private companies involved backing out of the projects in the face of rising costs and hostility from the people. Consequently, most of the projects have remained paper prototypes. But Sania Ngurang of the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation insisted this was not the case with the public-sector company’s projects. “If NEEPCO starts building it, we will finish it,” he said.